Working with PIOs thumb
Order print copy

Besides your own PIO, you can work with PIOs at journal publishers, scientific societies, and your funding agency to communicate your work. Also, your institution may use commercial PR agencies. Each of these types has differences, and understanding them can help you best benefit from their expertise.

PIOs at Journal Publishers and Scientific Societies

Many journal publishers and scientific societies have media relations offices that publicize the journal's articles or the society's meetings.

PIOs for journals typically send out a media package for each issue containing summaries of papers that might be of interest to journalists. For example, the news operations of Science, Nature, and the Cell Press and the American Chemical Society and American Physical Society journals all issue summaries of selected papers they deem newsworthy.

If you have a paper in press, check with your editor about the publicity process for that journal. And, check the journal's Web site for instructions for authors on how best to work with them. For example, the American Physical Society's Web site includes instructions for authors on publicity and outreach. The APS also operates the online magazine Physics, which features lay-level summaries, written by scientists, of important papers in its journals. And Nature posts a Web page that explains communication and media benefits.

And, as discussed previously, always always always let your own PIO know when you have a paper accepted.

Most major journals will notify your PIO when a paper is scheduled for publication. Also as discussed previously, Science, JAMA, PNAS and Cell Press journals post information on articles when they have been accepted but not yet scheduled. For example, AAAS notifies some 300 PIOs a week about upcoming papers in Science, even phoning PIOs with information on particularly newsworthy papers.

These journals recognize that your PIO is an invaluable ally, since he or she can do a news release that publicizes the journal's papers. There may be some limitations on such notifications, however, says AAAS public programs director Ginger Pinholster:

We are constrained until editorial tells us that the paper is accepted and the publication date. We can't launch into high gear with our notification while the paper is still in flux. However, it doesn't hurt to call, because you can get an idea of whether it looks like the paper is going to survive peer review and approximately when it might be published.

You can aid the journal's publicity process by offering to prepare a lay-level summary of the paper and to provide photos, graphics, video, or animations that illustrate the findings. Also, offer to check for accuracy any press summary on your paper.

You should make sure you are given a chance to edit any press release about your work or risk being at the mercy of their writers, warns the New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean, author of the book Am I Making Myself Clear?

"The journals are commercial operations. They tout their paper as a way of promoting the journal. And many times scientists have told me 'I saw the press release, and I just about died.'"

If the journal in which your paper is being published lacks such publicity support, find out the publication date from your editor, and make sure your PIO knows about it.

Do not assume that a journal PIO is aware of the newsworthiness of your paper, especially at publishers with many journals—such as Nature, Cell Press, the ACS or the AGU.

"We publish something like sixteen journals that total some fifty thousand pages a year of peer reviewed research," says former AGU communications officer Harvey Leifert. "There is no way we can tell what all the good stuff is. Titles and even abstracts often don't tell that a paper is newsworthy." What's more, says Leifert, journal editors might not even inform the PIO of newsworthy papers.

"We try hard, but with only modest success, to get the editors to tip us to exceptionally interesting papers that they have just accepted."

Thus, you and your PIO can alert the journal's PIO to your newsworthy paper and offer to help publicize it.

If your institution does not have a PIO who covers research—such as a smaller college—you can contact the journal PIO for help.

PIOs at scientific societies also publicize their meetings. For their national meetings, AAAS, ACS, AGU, and other major societies produce substantial online press kits and virtual press rooms that feature paper summaries, news conference schedules, and other information. To get an idea of the materials offered at such meetings, explore the EurekAlert! meetings announcements site.

Your PIO may prepare news releases on papers being delivered by researchers at such meetings, providing them for the virtual press rooms. Many PIOs also travel to such meetings, to contact reporters and talk about their institution's research. So, besides notifying your PIO about accepted papers, let him or her know about papers accepted for meetings.

PIOs at Your Funding Agency

The federal funding agencies, most notably NSF and NIH, operate active public affairs offices whose PIOs want to hear about your work. Their Web sites are excellent venues for your news releases and other content, because they carry the unique cachet of a major federal agency.

In communicating the advances in projects they support, funding agencies aim to demonstrate to Congress and the public their value, says NSF science communicator Leslie Fink, of NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs (OLPA).

"I think of it as a general responsibility of a federal agency to inform the American public—in ways that make sense to them and in context—what they are getting for the money they are spending," she says.

NSF and NIH consider such broad communications so important that their grant-making rules stipulate that the research projects must incorporate efforts to broadly disseminate their results. For example, in its merit review criteria, NSF offers these examples of activities for disseminating results beyond scientific publication:

However, says OLPA Director Jeff Nesbit, researchers would do well to think beyond this list when proposing their outreach activities:

Most researchers choose things that they know have worked in the past, and that they have heard other researchers talk about. So, they tend to focus on broadening diversity in education, or educational materials that might show up in classrooms. The review committees are now starting to look for the more innovative and creative ways to broaden the reach of your research, and one of the easiest ways is to look at mass communications vehicles and podcasts and video and projects of that sort.

NSF's public affairs office is eager to partner with researchers and their PIOs to communicate their work, say Nesbit and Fink. Given that the NSF Web site receives about a million hits a month, the chance to have a news release or feature posted on the site represents a golden opportunity. NSF offers basic advice for scientists on how to work with their PIOs on this page.

However, points out Nesbit, the reach of NSF media efforts extend far beyond the Web site. OLPA can produce releases and videos that are fed directly to media partners' cable channels, Web news portals, and Web sites. Also, NSF may produce media-briefing Webcasts on discoveries involving NSF-sponsored research. NSF's outreach efforts are not limited to the material produced by OLPA, he says.

"We promote university press releases just as much as we do our own," he says. "It is not about building up NSF's name," says Nesbit. "I don't want to say we are not interested in that, but it is not our principal mission. Our principal mission is using the NSF's name and platform to try to empower and facilitate the research that is going on out there."

To help your release reach media, NSF may post it in a media section of the NSF Web page on EurekAlert!, as well as being featured on the NSF Web site, he says.

To have your research news featured by NSF, your PIO should submit it to NSF through the appropriate staff member, as listed on the OLPA Web site. That staffer may do a version for the NSF site that will include a link to your release. Also, NSF might highlight your release in the "News from the Field" section, with a direct link to the release on your site.

The NSF site also seeks photos, illustrations, videos, and audio, says Nesbit and Fink. These will be featured on the NSF site and distributed via its Science360 news service.

You can help NSF reach another important audience, Congress, by producing a well-written annual research summary for your program officer. NSF excerpts these summaries in the report it sends to Congress, as part of the budget process. Unfortunately, many summaries are poorly written, says Fink:

"The vast majority of the time they are incomprehensible," she says. "We have to figure out what they were talking about and rewrite them in a way that a typical congressperson can not only understand, but get why the work is important.

"We realize that researchers have a lot of demands on their time, but they should realize that the science budget is not as protected as it once was, and this is one way they can help protect it." OLPA considers these summaries so crucial to NSF's legislative communication mission that it is rewriting them to make them more understandable and posting them on a special NSF Web page for Congressional staff that lists research projects by state.

The NIH communications offices also work with institutional PIOs to publicize NIH-sponsored research. However, the NIH is more decentralized than NSF, with 27 institutes and centers, each of which has its own communications office. These individual communications offices may have different practices for working with you and your PIO. Check with your program officer and/or the PIOs in your institute to explore the best way to work with its communications office.

The main NIH Web siteoffers news releases about work funded by all of the institutes and centers. Also, it offers the online magazine "Research Matters," which covers all of NIH's research. Those materials are produced by the Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

The National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) exemplifies the benefits of working with NIH PIOs. For one thing, its Web site links to universities' own releases about NIGMS-sponsored research. The NIGMS communications staff identifies those releases by searching EurekAlert! So, such releases should be posted on EurekAlert! and should specifically cite NIGMS as a funding source. What's more, NIGMS features selected releases on its e-newsletter, Biomedical Beat, as well as on a blog, Facebook pages, podcasts, videocasts and a Twitter feed.

NIGMS is also willing to provide a quote from an NIGMS administrator for a university's release, says NIGMS PIO Alisa Machalek.

"It's good for such releases to have an extra voice that explains the significance of the research and also to have a respected institution like NIH convey their support for the work," she says.

Some private foundations also take an active role in publicizing research that they support. For example, HHMI does releases on the work of its investigators—who are employees of HHMI, but based at their home institution. HHMI releases are often quite helpful to the institution's news office, says HHMI's Jim Keeley:

"My own anecdotal evidence is that many news officers are saying, 'We just did not have time to do this release; we are glad that you have one," he says. "We share our news releases, making them available to the institution, so that if they don't have their own, we are happy to provide those to them."

PIOs with Companies and Commercial Agencies

If you are at a university, and your work is funded by a company, you might find yourself working with PIOs from the company or a commercial agency they employ. Or, if you work for a small company, it might hire an outside agency or communications consultant.

In either case, understanding how to assess such firms can help you avoid the pitfalls they might present, and to communicate your work effectively and responsibly. Public relations consultant Lynne Friedmann offers advice on how to assess PIOs from an outside agency. She says the agency's writer should have a journalism background and should be a member of the National Association of Science Writers, or the Public Relations Society of America. It is also a good sign if they are an APR (Accredited Public Relations) professional, which means they have demonstrated a body of knowledge about PR and adherence to ethical conduct.

Universities also may hire commercial agencies to represent them. In working with such firms, apply the same principles of responsible communications that you would in working with your own PIO. For example, just as you would not allow your own PIO to hype or distort your work to gain attention, you should not allow such an outside agency to do so.

One drawback to such commercial firms is that journalists often hold a negative perception of them.

"At the Chronicle, we used to get these guys coming in with fancy suits from PR agencies hired by one university or another to increase their standing," recalls Kim McDonald, who was a science writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education for 20 years. "The problem was that they were advertising company executives who knew very little about the substance of what was going on at the universities they represented."

Science News editor Tom Siegfried declares that "Agencies are almost always bad." The advantage of an institutional PIO, he says, is that "you have the personal individual relationship with someone who gets to know the reporters and their interests and needs personally and build a trust and helping relationship." In contrast, he says, when he has encountered agency public relations people, "it always come down to 'How do you manipulate the media into doing what you want them to do?'

"Very rarely has an agency ever come in and pitched something, or presented something in a way that remotely coincided with what I wanted to hear," says Siegfried. "They give us fancy press kits, and they get these weird ideas they think are clever for stories that are totally dumb as hell."

One absurd agency strategy that Siegfried encountered in his newspaper days was to offer a reporter clips from other newspapers, such as the New York Times, to show how important a story they are pitching is.

"First of all, it's usually a story I did before the Times, and to think that is going to make me want to write a story because they can show you what the New York Times wrote, it is dumb," says Siegfried.

"A message for scientists is that if they are interested in having good media relations, rule number one would be don't hire an agency," he says. "Hire a professional science journalist/PIO, who knows the field, who knows science journalism, who knows the journalists, and who knows how to cultivate those personal relationships."

You may also encounter pitfalls working with a PR company or agency on a release on your work—particularly for medical researchers with contracts from pharmaceutical companies. Says Don Gibbons,

That first press release is something that I refer to as a ménage à trois on burlap sheets. What that means is you are excited about your work, your university PIO is excited about the work, and the drug company's PR agency is excited about the work. But they all have different reasons for being excited, and someone is going to end up with skinned knees unless you go into it carefully.

You are excited about the work because of what your colleagues will think of it. Your PIO is excited because of the news peg. And the drug company is looking for something that will send their stock up.

While your PIO will be looking for the caveats and making sure it's not oversold, the company will not be as interested; and you might get so taken in, you forget those caveats.

What's more, warns Gibbons, a PR agency might try to use your institution's reputation to enhance media attention to the work. For example, the agency might ask for an institution's letterhead or logo to use on a release. Obviously, you should decline such requests. Also, make sure that the agency checks its news release quotes with your own news service, to make sure you are not being cast as an endorser of a product such as a drug.

When PIOs Synergize to Publicize

There may be occasions when multiple PIOs are working on separate releases about your work, for example if you publish a newsworthy journal article, receive a major grant, and so on. Collaborations among PIOs are often amicable and synergistic.

For example, if your PIO notifies AAAS of a planned news release on a Science paper, the AAAS Office of Public Programs can enhance media attention for the release, says AAAS public programs director Ginger Pinholster. The release can be posted on the AAAS online press room containing summaries of the next issue's papers, as well as on the EurekAlert! embargoed news pages.

NIGMS PIO Alisa Machalek says she considers working with a university's PIO

...a win-win relationship. I have on countless occasions offered a PIO a news release to distribute themselves. I feel like we have the same goals; that we are not competing. And when we put a quote in their release, they get an authoritative quote, and we get our little piece of the story.

When a paper's authors come from several institutions, their PIOs can agree to either issue a joint release or "parallel" releases from each institution. Multiple releases or a joint release can emphasize the importance of a piece of work to journalists. At the AGU, Harvey Leifert encouraged such joint releases for just that reason.

"When a PIO would contact us about a release on a paper in, say Geophysical ResearchLetters, we would ask to see a draft in advance, with a view toward co-issuing it," he says. "And if we were doing a release, we would contact the institution to see whether they would like to come in on it. Or, if we were both doing releases, we could coordinate to issue them on the same day.

"Working together could multiply the number of reporters who would see the release. For example, a state university would focus on their immediate market, because they were interested in influencing state legislators; whereas, we have a worldwide distribution of about fourteen hundred reporters."

Failing to take advantage of such mutually beneficial collaborations can create strains on relationships and lose opportunities for enhanced coverage. Catherine Foster recalls when she worked at Argonne National Laboratory that there were lost opportunities to help PIOs from institutions whose scientists used its research facilities.

"We always got a little upset when we saw a story go out about work done at the Advanced Photon Source, and we didn't know about it. We felt like we could have helped with it; for example posting it on our Web site. It's not that hard to drop an email to somebody that says 'Tomorrow we are putting out a news release that mentions you. Anything you could do to help would be lovely.'"

A PIO might tend to resist such coordination, "because they see it as another approval hoop, and most of us are jumping through enough of those," says Foster. "But we were not looking to approve your release, if your researcher is comfortable with it." Also, a PIO might be possessive or parochial about his or her news release, reluctant to share it with colleagues at other institutions.

In working on a news release with your PIO, your wisest course is to advocate coordinating it as widely as possible. Such coordination is to everybody's benefit, since it broadens the reach and impact of your communications.

(Next: Understand Embargoes Pro and Con)
© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
Order print copies of "Working With Public Information Officers"